More than 15 years ago, while serving in the Air Force, Chris Burnette decided he needed a hobby. Would fishing, woodworking or learning how to play the guitar work? Not for Burnette, who is now president and CEO of Coulter & Payne Farm Distillery. “I was curious about how to make moonshine,” he remembers with a laugh. “So I called my grandma (Dorlis Payne) and talked with her for a long time about how to do it.”
Family lore on the Payne side of the family includes many recalling that Burnette’s great-aunt (his grandmother’s sister), in eastern Tennessee, ran the family still, dating back to before Prohibition. “My grandmother gave me the family recipe and explained to me what I needed to do,” he notes. “But I had to go out and learn how to distill on my own because she wasn't there to show me. I called her when I had questions, but after a couple of years, I taught myself how to actually distill. Ever since that time, I've been doing it off and on.”
Years later, now married to Elise, a moment occurred when Burnette could take his hobby a step further. “Shawnee Bend Farms (in Union, Missouri) belonged to my wife’s dad,” Burnette explains. “When he passed away, he left the farm to Elise and her brother. The farm wasn’t being used and had fallen into a decrepit state.”
The family spent the next three years cleaning up the farm, while trying to find a way for the farm to pay for itself and maybe make some money, as well. “Eventually (in October 2011), I convinced my wife that we should make alcohol,” Burnette laughs. “And we've been full force ever since, with her brother onboard.” In fact, the small company has become a family affair with both families heavily involved.
After an initial thought to operate the new business under the name of Mad Buffalo Distillery (Thunderbeast vodka and whiskeys, currently available at some local outlets), Burnette explains that the family has since opted for Coulter & Payne Farm Distillery to better reflect the company’s ideology and brand. “Coulter and Payne are both family names,” he says. “While Payne is from my side, Coulter is from my wife's side of the family. Her great-grandfather owned Coulter Feed Company and Feed Store in Kirkwood from 1904 until the 1940s.”
According to Burnette, the two families, have ‘meshed’ together to take his little hobby and turn it into a sustainable business—in more ways than one. “What makes us unique is that we are focused on the farm distillery, as well as the farming. We are one of about only 15 distilleries in the country that actually grows its own corn and grain. Most everyone else buys its crops from elsewhere. And, we are actually located on a farm.”
While not certified organic, Burnette says the farm operates based on organic practices through crop rotation and by not using herbicides or pesticides, and growing 100 percent non-GMO corn. Currently, the artisan distillery produces handcrafted, small batches of vodka and moonshine—which is an un-aged, clear corn whiskey that, contrary to popular belief, “doesn’t burn your mouth and all the way down,” according to Burnette—under the soon-to-be-distributed product line called Crop Circle (coming in January). However, Coulter & Payne’s true specialty is its high-quality bourbon (a type of whiskey), which contains no additives like coloring, sugar or flavors.
"Whiskey is really taking off right now; and bourbon, in particular, is really on fire!” Burnette says. “I cannot make enough of it. People are really starting to rediscover it.” He notes that Bourbon is a true American spirit: “To be a bourbon, it has to have been made in the United States. It's like scotch for Scotland or Irish whiskey and Ireland. It's protected, and you cannot use the word ‘bourbon’ unless it is made in the U.S. And bourbon contains 51 percent or higher of corn, and then it is aged in new, charred oak barrels.”
Yes, that ‘new’ is very important to the process, as Burnette explains that the wood contributes the most during the aging of bourbon. “A barrel can only be used once,” he says. “So, everything we do is based on flavor, and if it meets our criteria, then we bottle it."
For the most part, the distillery’s bourbon is bottled as a blend of several barrels—usually four barrels of bourbon in all. According to Burnette, barrels that are currently aging are developing into flavors that include chocolate, cherry and berry notes, vanilla, and even a barrel that features a honey graham cracker-like taste. “So what we will do with these four batches is that we will blend those barrels together and create a product based on those notes,” he describes. “When it is bottled, it will be so good and so unique. But then sometimes—and it’s not often—we will end up with a batch that is so good on its own, and I will sell the entire barrel to one individual or restaurant."
In 2015, look for new growth from Coulter & Payne Farm Distillery with its new branding and likely new distributors, as well. “We are starting to get noticed elsewhere. We have been contacted by distributors in California, Nevada, North Carolina and Texas; and in the last four months, we have doubled our accounts in Missouri, especially in St. Louis. We are really starting to pick up, and it's nice,” Burnette ends with a laugh. Turning a hobby into a business—it’s nice work if you can get it!
Bourbon, Spice and Everything Nice
A cocktail straight from Coulter & Payne Farm Distillery’s test kitchen, it’s sweet and warm, with hints of lemon, cinnamon, and cream—perfect for the holidays!
Combine the following in a glass:
- 1 ounce Thunderbeast Storm (or Crop Circle in 2015) Moonshine
- 1 ounce Thunderbeast Baby Buffalo Bourbon
- ½ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ½ ounce simple syrup
- 5 dashes of Angostura bitters
Shake for 10 seconds in a cocktail mixer. Add 1 egg white and shake for an additional 15 seconds. Add ice, and shake one last time to finish. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a Champagne glass. Garnish with ground cinnamon and a cinnamon stick. Serve and enjoy!